Brain health is profoundly affected by your fatty-acid intake
In one of my books, Brain Building Nutrition, I cited the remarkable case of a young girl who suffered a bullet wound to the abdomen. Because of extensive damage, she required extensive surgery that caused her to lose parts of her small and large intestines. This meant many months of intravenous feeding to nurture her back to health.
However, within a year of the injury, she began to experience a bewildering array of neurological symptoms that were unrelated to the bullet wound. The symptoms included numbness in the hands and feet, loss of sensation, leg pain, blurred vision, arm tremors and inability to sense vibration. These are all signs of nerve degeneration. The girl became so weak that she was unable to walk for ten or fifteen minutes at a time.
Blood tests revealed that she had become deficient in alpha-linolenic acid, an essential omega-3 fatty acid. After exhaustive searches for the cause, doctors finally looked at the intravenous solution she had been receiving. They were startled to find that the two essential fatty acids, which should be consumed at a ratio of roughly 1:1, were actually given for an entire year on wildly skewed ratio of 115:1.
When doctors brought the fatty-acid balance to a more reasonable 6:1, the girl’s “neurological symptoms disappeared.”
This was dramatic evidence that nerve degeneration could be induced with omega-3 fatty acid deficiency and that neurological damage could be repaired with proper supplementation.
Why is this story important to each of us? It demonstrates very clearly the relationship between proper nutrition and brain health. The omega-6 to omega-3 fatty-acid ratio in the typical American diet is commonly found to be around 30:1. While this is not as high as that found in the young girl with the bullet wound, it is far greater than the 4:1 ratio recommended my many researchers in this field (some would recommend a 1:1 ratio). To make matters worse, the breast milk of women living on modern diets has been found to vary all the way up to 60:1, meaning that many infants start out life in a deficient state. From this and other evidence, it would appear that we have undertaken a bold and dangerous dietary experiment with profound implications for the brain of individuals and, perhaps, even for society.
If you want your brain to function at its peak and to serve you throughout your life, it is important that you consider at least two things: First, bring your dietary intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids back into balance, aiming for a ratio of about 4:1. Second, ingest preformed EPA and DHA from either fish or supplements like krill oil or fish oil.
Michael A. Schmidt, is a NASA consultant in the areas of space biomedicine and space biotechnology and author of numerous books, including Brain-Building Nutrition: How Dietary Fats and Oils Affect Mental, Physical, and Emotional Intelligence.Complete bio.